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Remembered Today:

German 'Travelling Circus' trench raids


tonyforrest
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The statutory apologies if this has been done to death and I’ve missed it. However…….

In ‘With the 10th Essex in France’ R. A. Chell describes the German bombardment and subsequent trench raid of their position in front of La Boisselle on 31.1.16. This intense little action cost them their Lt. Colonel (Radcliffe) and ten men taken prisoner from ‘B’ Company.

Chell ascribes much of the success of the raid to a specialised, English speaking, British uniformed, ‘travelling circus’ which ‘performed these stunts up and down the line’

I have checked as carefully as I can in my own library and searched the ‘net, but nothing has come out of it. Though I do note that here on GWF, Alastair Fraser demolished the ‘travelling circus’ explanation in the 29th Divisional history for a raid on 6.4.16 near Auchonvillers on 2nd SWB.

To the question then. Did the ‘travelling circus’ exist and if so what is known? Or was it an attempt to explain a particular variety of well-rehearsed, well-equipped raid which any German infantry regiment might be likely to organise provided they had the wherewithal and initiative. I suppose it would be a pity if that were the case. There’s the makings of a good film in it!

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Hello Tony

Many German officers of the time would have been relatively fluent in English. I recently read an account by a senior British officer who visited Berlin before the war and found that all the senior German officers he met were perfectly able, and happy, to converse in English. The elder von Moltke, architect of the victory in 1870, was known to read Victorian English novels for relaxation!

Given this, and with enough British uniforms, there is no reason why virtually any German unit could not mount such a raid, If it became a fairly regular feature (even if not always successful) it would be easy to assume that a specialist "circus" was at work, whereas in fact it might simply have been several different groups carrying out an agreed policy.

It doesn't answer your question, I'm afraid, but if the travelling circus was a myth, at least it explains how it might have come about.

Ron

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The statutory apologies if this has been done to death and I’ve missed it. However…….

In ‘With the 10th Essex in France’ R. A. Chell describes the German bombardment and subsequent trench raid of their position in front of La Boisselle on 31.1.16. This intense little action cost them their Lt. Colonel (Radcliffe) and ten men taken prisoner from ‘B’ Company.

Chell ascribes much of the success of the raid to a specialised, English speaking, British uniformed, ‘travelling circus’ which ‘performed these stunts up and down the line’

I have checked as carefully as I can in my own library and searched the ‘net, but nothing has come out of it. Though I do note that here on GWF, Alastair Fraser demolished the ‘travelling circus’ explanation in the 29th Divisional history for a raid on 6.4.16 near Auchonvillers on 2nd SWB.

To the question then. Did the ‘travelling circus’ exist and if so what is known? Or was it an attempt to explain a particular variety of well-rehearsed, well-equipped raid which any German infantry regiment might be likely to organise provided they had the wherewithal and initiative. I suppose it would be a pity if that were the case. There’s the makings of a good film in it!

I have been reading German books on the German Army in WW I about two hours a day average for the last eight years, and I have not heard of such a thing. Nor any mention of German officers wearing British uniforms, although if this was done one would likely not want to do write about such a dishonorable thing. There are strong organizational reasons why this is unlikely, this wandering all over the front doing this special task. Having said that, my father's unit, flame-throwers, reported directly to the Highest Army Command, and were doled out for special tasks. But their organization was probably unique.

I so know a lot about the organization and preperation for German trench raids, and if possible there was a good deal of preparation, even to the point of replicating a copy of the position to be stormed, and training on that replica. Also the men were usually a picked sub-set of the unit conducting the raid, more fit, more agressive.

Then there were the storm battalions, which sometimes carried out difficult tasks. There generally was only one of these, usually of three infantry companies and supporting units, per German Army.

I also read a fair number of memoires from the Allied side, in English and French, and I must say that I see a great many very odd and implausable stories woven into the narratives. Also, the story of the treacherous English-speaking officer performing tricks on Allied troops seem to be a standard talking point in the apparent propaganda materials.

Having said that, I have seen many Allied mentions of surprise that so many Germans spoke English. When my father left school and entered the German Army as a private, he had six languages, five (Latin, Classical Greek, English, French, and German) learned at school, where intensive training in foreign languages started in third grade, and a sixth, Russian, that he learned to some degree on repeated solo trips for vacation and work into Russia as a teen-ager. I have no grasp of the quantification, but I sense that Germans of the period generally tended to have a grasp of more foreign languages than, say, the British. (Having said that, I do not believe the rumors of the "English gene" that prevents the British from learning foreign languages.)

Bob Lembke

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Ron rather said the same thing that I did while I wrote my typically excessively long post. The German royal family (for example, the Kaiser and Kronprinz Wilhelm) tended to be quite tri-lingual, speaking excellent French and English, as far as I know. I think that my father's lifelong favorate authors were Dickens and Maugam (I know I mis-spelled him), a habit he learned in school in Germany.

Bob

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I have never heard of this idea that a specialist unit travelled up and down the front, performing trench raids in disguise. That of course does not mean it didn't happen but I would have thought it would have been as well known as von Richthofen's circus if it had existed. I also cannot imagine any commander, German or not, welcoming the idea that his unit could not make any kind of raid that might be required.

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The whole idea sounds like a traveling troupe of itinerant actors. I think that the whole idea of such a unit would have been repugnant. I have seen repeated reports of the supposed treachery of English-speaking Germans in British uniforms, and they seem either to be outright propaganda of the "treacherous Hun" variety, or possibly an explaination for an embarrassing local action like a raid.

I recently read an elaborate story of such a Hunnish outrage in a book that is known to be a UK government sponsored and subsidized propaganda publication, part of the elaborate "Private Peat" charade. In it a unit of Brits on the battlefield encounter a "British" officer, who orders them to take shelter in a particular trench; the second they enter the trench the entire trench explodes, having been rigged with a series of bombs on a timer. (This elaborate trench/bomb no doubt having been built within the British lines by a English-speaking German field company of Royal Engineers.) The book is full of astonishing assertions, like the UK totally awash with German spies, busily building concrete emplacements for artillery along major UK rail lines to enable the German spy-artillery to shell Brit troop trains (in 1918?); it is the 1918 book by "Mrs. Peat". In 1923 "Private Peat" wrote a passionate appology for his war-time propaganda work.

Bob

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Tony,

As returning prisoners of war, the men who were snatched in the raid would have submitted statements about the circumstances of their capture to an inquiry board. These statements, which should be in their personal records, might possibly give some details about the German raiders. Apart from Lt-Col Radcliffe, are the names of any of the other ten known?

An interesting story. I wonder if Radcliffe is the only CO - or highest ranking officer - to have been captured in a trench raid.

Tunesmith

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I beilieve Radcliffe was actually killed during the accompanying shellings, not taken prisoner.

Regards

Ali

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And to add, the war diary lists the following men as missing on that date:

14256 L/Sgt Lucas

16631 L/Cpl Archer

14383 L/cpl Foley

14388 Pte Wackett

14542 Pte Lavender

14534 Pte Wood A

14186 Pte Kemsley

16653 Pte French E

13762 Pte Sharp E

14511 Pte Gayner H

14221 Pte Adams JW

16579 Pte Coote G

13638 Pte Stevens

Regards

Ali

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My thanks to everyone for their input.

Tunesmith:

Sorry, I could have made the initial post somewhat clearer. Col. Radcliffe was killed during the bombardment when a shell hit Battn HQ dug-out causing a beam to crush his head. He is buried in Becourt Military Cemetery. The men taken PoW were also in a dug-out but off a comms trench about 15 yards from the front line. All I can say is that they were a section of B Coy. Chell gives no names and the 18th Div. history glosses over the story.

So far as the 'travelling circus' is concerned, Chell amplifies the matter thus:

"....the German 'travelling circus' as the party who performed these stunts up and down the line was called, was the grave of a good many reputations. Several months afterwards it was agreed at a big conference at the Third Army School that it was well-nigh impossible for a unit to protect itself against these well-organised and executed incursions."

Which sounds to me as if Third Army was taking the matter seriously.

IPT :D I thought the Indian Army was further North in 1915, didn't know they were on the Somme in 1916 too.........!

Tony Forrest

Edited to add - Took so long to compose this that the world overtook me. Must learn to type faster!

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I thought the Indian Army was further North in 1915, didn't know they were on the Somme in 1916 too.........!

Tony

The original Indian Corps of two infantry divisions had left France by the end of 1915. Thereafter there were still two Indian cavalry divisions, at least one of which supported Fourth and Fifth Armies on the Somme.

Ron

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Tony

The original Indian Corps of two infantry divisions had left France by the end of 1915. Thereafter there were still two Indian cavalry divisions, at least one of which supported Fourth and Fifth Armies on the Somme.

Ron

Ron

er,oops! Was thinking infantry. I was in Neuve Chapelle/Aubers last week so it's rather on my mind.

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